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Previewing the sides: Guangzhou Evergrande

With the 2013 CSL kick-off imminent, it’s finally time for to preview last year’s league and cup double winners, big-spending Guangzhou Evergrande.

The manager: Legendary Italian manager Marcello Lippi was hired by Evergrande a couple of months into the 2012 season and finished it by adding the CSL title and CFA Cup to his already weighty career haul of trophies, which includes a World Cup and Champion’s League victory. His appointment was controversial however, as the man he replaced, Lee Jang-Soo, could hardly have done more to endear himself to the club hierarchy. Having led the club to the top spot in China League One and the Super League in the previous two seasons, Lee was fired with his team four points clear at the top of the CSL table (the same margin by which they eventually won the league title) the day after seeing his players beat Buriram United to secure passage to the knockout stages of the Asian Champion’s League from what was undoubtedly the toughest group in the competition. Lippi and his backroom team were apparently brought in primarily to increase the level of professionalism at the club, but his cup pedigree was undoubtedly also a major factor as owner Xu Jiayin deeply desires success at the continental level.

The history: Their current incarnation as a branch of Evergrande Real Estate Group only dates back to 2010, when the company bought them after their relegation to China League One as punishment for their involvement in a match-fixing scandal (an offense which apparently only warrants a mere six point deduction these days). However, the club is actually one of the oldest in the league, having been founded in 1953 as Guangzhou Football Team, and it was also the first Chinese football club to turn professional. Despite this, Guangzhou’s first top tier title only came in 2011 after massive investment by the current owners. This spending spree (along with that of the owners of the recently relocated Guangzhou R+F and Guizhou Renhe) has somewhat shifted the balance of power in Chinese football towards the South, much to the chagrin of Northern football fans.

The stadium: Tianhe Stadium is located in the city centre of Guangzhou, between CITIC Plaza and TeeMall. It has a seating capacity of 58’500, but the high number of seats occupied by on-duty police as well as the space set aside for visiting fans (who rarely turn up in numbers sufficient to fill more than a couple of rows) mean that attendance figures never reach these heights. Strangely, official numbers for last season never passed the 40’000 mark for CSL games, despite often attracting crowds that looked no smaller than those at games which were reported to attract closer to 50’000 the previous season. Tickets are probably the most expensive in the league, ranging from 50rmb behind the goals to 120rmb in more central areas, and generally go on sale at the club shops beside the stadium the day before matches.

The team: By some distance the most expensively assembled squad in the CSL, Evergrande boast an almost ridiculous (as some on this site never tire of pointing out) number of China national squad members, as well as some of the most high-profile foreign acquisitions in the league. This provides the club with great strength in depth, but the downside has been a lack of stability. Hopefully now that Lippi has had the best part of a year with the squad, the team will be more settled this season. Certainly against Urawa last week and in the opening minutes against Jiangsu in the Super Cup, Guangzhou looked tight and very well-organised, but the extent to which Jiangsu’s first goal seemed to disrupt their composure was disconcerting.
Up front they will mostly rely on their foreign contingent, though the erratic Gao Lin should continue getting plenty of opportunities to demonstrate his value. In the centre of the pitch, captain Zheng Zhi shows no signs of losing his well-earned automatic place on the team-sheet, with Huang Bowen, Qin Sheng, and Zhao Xuri contending for the other available spot. It is on the sides where there is the most uncertainty as to who will be starting regularly, though at the moment Sun Xiang and Rong Hao seem the most likely candidates.

The changes: On the domestic front, major winter purchases include two national team regulars from relegated Henan Construction, defender Zhao Peng and goalkeeper Zeng Cheng, Shanghai Shenhua winger Feng Renliang, and promising young defender Yi Teng from Shenzhen Ruby. Zeng is a major improvement on Lippi’s previous first choice keeper Li Shuai, while Zhao and Yi will add depth to the squad in central defense, an area where the team looked relatively threadbare last season, particularly as Lippi moved to playing three at the back.
The transfer to Guangzhou R+F of aging local heroes, Wu Pingfeng and Li Jianbin, mean that Evergrande are sadly very low on Cantonese players this season, with only Feng Junyan flying the flag for established local talent (though youngster Shi Hongjun has been getting a bit of game time in the run-up to the CSL opener). The sale of striker Jiang Ning, also to R+F, upset a few people, but he simply wasn’t getting the game time he deserves last season due to the emphasis on foreign attacking talent, so the move is probably for the best all round.

The foreigners: The controversial decision midway through last season to allow Guangzhou to have seven foreign players in the squad rather than the standard five seemed to hinder the club rather than help it, as those not playing every game became vocally demoralised. Thankfully the decision has been reversed in the off-season, leading Paulão and Cléo (and forgotten man Renato) to be sent out on loan, and Cho Won-Hee to be transferred to newly promoted Wuhan Zall.

Of those left, Kim Young-Gwon has established himself as an essential presence at the heart of defense since his arrival midway through last season, while Conca and Muriqui are regarded as the team’s most potent attacking threats. Lucas Barrios has not consistently impressed since he arrived to much fanfare in the summer and needs to sharpen up considerably if he is to justify his price-tag. New arrival Elkeson seems to have been signed to replace Conca, who is widely expected to leave in the summer, and will likely be given time to bed in, though he may end up regularly taking Barrios’ place in the team if the Paraguayan international fails to step up quickly enough.

The star: While the club’s hierarchy would no doubt like Barrios to be considered as the star of the team, going by the amount of cringeworthy merchandise with his face plastered all over it available from the club shops, the fact is that Brazilian Muriqui, now in his fourth season at the club, is the squad’s most potent and thrilling player. It is no coincidence that Guangzhou’s most difficult phase of last season coincided with his absence through an injury sustained via a cynical (and unpunished) challenge in the ACL quarter-final, and his majestic performance against Urawa Red Diamonds last week underscored his importance to the team.

The youngster: While there are a number of young players in the first team squad, the depth of talent available to Lippi means that they get little playing time in the first team. For this reason, I’m going to fall back on talking up a youngster (23 is still young, right?) who really needs no talking up, Zhang Linpeng. Skilful, robust, and equally comfortable and impressive at centre-back or attacking from the right side of defense, Zhang is one of the most important (if not the most important) Chinese members of the squad. If he continues to improve at the rate he’s going, he could well end up leaving China quite soon for greater challenges in Europe. He does need to work on his temper somewhat though.

The prediction: While some other clubs have invested quite heavily this winter, particularly Dalian Aerbin and Shandong Luneng, Guangzhou are still clear favourites to retain their league title for an unprecedented third consecutive season. However the main focus of the club is likely to be on achieving ACL success this season after being so unlucky in getting knocked out at the quarter-final stage last season, and this could be to the detriment of their league performances. I expect Aerbin to run Evergrande close, but not quite close enough.

Irish Guangzhou Evergrande fan, following them since I fortuitously found myself living next to Tianhe Stadium in 2011, reporting on them for Wild East Football since 2012.

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